Have you ever felt put in a position where you couldn’t say “no,” and then felt resentful about it? Do you have a hard time telling somebody “no” because you don’t want to hurt their feelings? Have you ever felt like you have been especially giving to someone close to you, though have felt burned time and again by him or her? Are you thinking that there should be a word stronger than “yes” to answer these questions? All of these scenarios, and countless others, are boundary violations. Most, if not all, of the clients that I have ever seen, no matter what they are coming in for, have suffered from boundary violations dating back to their childhoods, and continue to struggle with boundaries as a result. This is especially true, for me, when counseling couples, individuals with anxiety and depression, and individuals, couples and families who are having great difficulty in adjusting to change and new circumstances. Believe it or not, we therapists have suffered boundary violations, or injuries, in our own lives, so it is essential that we are cognizant of and vigilant about our own boundaries as well as the boundaries of our clients.
In their classic work, Boundaries: When To Say “Yes” and How To Say “No” To Take Back Your Life Cloud and Townsend (1992) highlight four specific types of boundary violators:
Compliants: Those Who Say “Yes” to the Bad
These first two categories rely on discernment, the ability (or inability) to distinguish good from bad. Compliants are unable to recognize that what they are letting pass through their boundaries is not good for them. And “bad” is often far from self-evident. For instance, Sam may be initially quite flattered that he has been asked by his son’s little league team to take over as head coach after the designated coach has had to relocate suddenly for his work. Sam agrees to this immediately and cheerfully and everyone is excited because Sam “saved the day” for the team. However, Sam has momentarily forgotten all of the other commitments he has obliged himself to for the summer at work, at home, and at church. On the drive home he slowly and painfully realizes that his evening office committee meetings, the home improvement projects he has been promising his wife for years, the various other sports and musical pursuits in which his other children are involved, and all of the other things that Sam has said yes to will make coaching his son’s team almost impossible, while dropping anything or everything else will disappoint many more. Sam will soon go from saving the day to ruining the summer.
So while coaching one’s child’s little league team is certainly not in itself a bad thing at all, agreeing to do so when already committed is certainly going to lead to a bad outcome.
Avoidants: Those Who Say “No” to the Good
The exact opposite of being compliant in letting in what is bad is being avoidant and not letting in what is good. Rex has been in some bad relationships where women have used him because of his money but inevitably cheated on him because they weren’t really attracted to him. Therefore, Rex has become mistrustful of all women who show any interest in him, assuming they are all after his money, thereby preventing any women who have a genuine interest in Rex from becoming involved with him and effectively robbing Rex of a potentially wonderful committed relationship, perhaps even a much-desired family.
Avoidants don’t always have impenetrable walls erected in response to a trauma or attachment injury. Many avoidants are taught at a formative age that receiving from others is selfish and greedy and therefore deny themselves the good that others have to offer them, from relationships to compliments to tangible and physical gifts.
Controllers: Those Who Don’t Respect Others’ Boundaries
Controllers can be fairly easy to spot. The guy at work who keeps teasing you about your boyfriend after you asked him not to. The mother who continually interrupts her son’s swimming teacher during his class to ask various questions about his progress. These two examples are what Cloud and Townsend refer to as “aggressive controllers,” those who don’t really believe in anything besides “yes” from others when they assert their will upon them.
Perhaps a bit more subtle to identify are the “manipulative controllers,” who, like their aggressive counterparts, only can handle a “yes,” but are not as honest about achieving it. The mother who guilts her son into dropping everything and coming over to watch television with her because “I’m so lonely after your father left me. Maybe I’ll just die here all alone.” Controllers tend to be utterly self-centered, and the manipulative types will often only do things for others with the expectation that they will receive as much or more back as a result of their efforts. They can often be very crafty about this, leaving their friends and family members confused as to why they are feeling so guilty or resentful.
Nonresponsives: Those Who Don’t Listen to the Needs of Others
Nonresponsives also fall into two groups, those who project their own inadequacies onto others and thus their responsibility for them (e.g., the father who denies his own failings as a parent and becomes overly critical of his adult son’s shortcomings), or the more narcissistic types who see others only as pawns in their game, either as nuisances or compliant drones serving the pursuit of their own selfish desires. These individuals appear large on ego and enormously limited in empathy.
Anne Katherine, in her book Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (1994), goes so far as to say that when parents have boundaries that distance them from their children too much, they are essentially at risk for neglect. This kind of distance can prevent the parent bonding with the child and the child bonding with the parent, creating another crisis of attachment that can have devastating long-term effects.
The types highlighted above are divided into four separate domains for the purpose of clarity and ease of description. In practice, however, the four generally don’t make themselves so distinctly apparent and often overlap.
My problem or my concern?
Most of us like to help people, especially those we love the most. But often there are some people who take advantage of our graciousness, or we end up taking on responsibility for others without their even asking us to, and we end up hurting them by helping them. Sometimes very loving parents of adolescent or adult children enable irresponsibility in the name of being a “good parent” and “doing everything I can do for my kids,” perhaps even describing their enabling behavior as “the right parental thing to do.” These parents all eventually become resentful and exhausted and can’t understand why their kids don’t seem to grow up despite all the great help they are being given. When asked why they do this, a typical response is, “well we can’t have him living under a bridge.” These parents need to learn to ask themselves: is what is happening right now my problem, or is it my concern?
We can be very concerned about the lives of others, especially those closest to us, and be helpful support in their hours of need. This does not mean we take on their problems as our own. The teacher who is being asked by the parent of one of her favorite students to arrange a special make-up exam for the child because they want to take a special vacation, even though school policy forbids it, will have to realize that this is not her problem but her concern. The father who is called in the middle of the night by his adult daughter because she has just been put in jail again for breaking the conditions of her probation may be very concerned about her, but this is not his problem. By making the problems of others our problems, there is an underlying message that tends to stick: “I don’t believe that you can handle this, or anything like it, so I will rescue you.”
Do I want to be liked or respected?
My older sister, who when she was a higher up with IBM some years ago, offered me some management advice: “It is better for people to respect you then to like you.” I believe this sage advice not to be just a good idea for managers, but for everyone. It can be a good barometer for the individual who wants to know in a questionable situation whether or not she or he is inviting a boundary violation. For instance, there is a male real estate agent who is working with a recently widowed woman who wants to sell the house that she and her husband had lived in during the past 30 years. The agent had gone out of his way to work with this woman because of her obvious distress at being on her own. He did some things for her in this situation that he had never done for other clients, such as mowing her grass because she didn’t know how, and arranging storage and other details for her because she had asked him so desperately. The agent was also receiving phone calls from the woman throughout the week and weekend, often at moments that he was trying to spend time with his family. This agent had recently been having marital difficulties and his wife’s main complaint was that he was spending too much time at work and not enough time at home.
The man felt torn and resentful toward both the widow for taking up so much of his time and his wife for not understanding how much good work he was trying to do for others. Of course, when he was forced in a therapy session to assess his motivation in these problematic exchanges, he had to admit it revolved around a need to be liked (or admired, or appreciated) rather than a need to have his time and his talents respected. He wanted it to be more important for him to be respected than to be liked, but in his heart he knew he had it reversed. Therapy then would be focused upon acting as if he felt respect was primary in order to begin establishing the attitude that this was, in fact, true.
Do I Want To Be Omnipotent?
“He makes me so mad!” “She drove me to it.” “I want to be happy, but she keeps bringing me down.” These are statements that you have likely heard from others who feel anxious, depressed, or otherwise in despair. They are also statements that rest on the assumption that someone else is responsible for your feelings other than yourself. A step away from this is entertaining the belief that others have the power to make you feel good, bad, or otherwise. One place to change this self-defeating mentality is being mindful of expressions such as “he makes me feel…” as they come up, and rewiring yourself toward accepting responsibility for your own feelings.
Why we might find this attitude that others are able to determine our feelings as so attractive is that it also gives us the power to affect the feelings of those around us, or omnipotence.
Omnipotence is a measurement in The Dysfunctional Attitude Scale (DAS) that was developed by Dr. Arlene Weissman and displayed in Feeling Good by David Burns (2008). This is a subscale among scales that reveals dysfunctional attitudes that typically lead individuals into helpless and hopeless thoughts and feelings. The questions below will reveal those individuals who feel that they are responsible for other people’s feelings. (Lower scores are indicative of areas of emotional strength – meaning that you don’t believe in this statement much or at all. Higher scores indicate areas of emotional vulnerability – meaning that you at least agree or agree very much with this statement. If you are neutral on any of these, you also need to work on rethinking your irrational ideas about omnipotence).
You MUST be honest with yourself in answering these questions (nobody else is listening or keeping track):
1. I should assume responsibility for how people feel and behave if they are close to me.
2. If I criticize the way someone does something and they become angry or depressed this means I have upset them.
3. To be a good, worthwhile, moral person, I must try to help everyone who needs it.
4. If a child is having emotional or behavioral difficulties, this shows that the child's parents have failed in some important respect.
5. I should be able to please everybody.
These statements and the degree to which individuals agree or disagree with them measure the tendency to see themselves as the centers of their personal universes and hold themselves responsible for what goes on around them. High scorers are individuals who blame themselves inappropriately for the negative actions and attitudes of others who they erroneously believe are under their control. This is simple rational (or irrational) thinking. As a result, they become guilty and self-condemning when things with others go wrong. The paradox with these people is that their attitude that they should be omnipotent actually makes them less effectual in others’ lives, and only able to assert their “power” through desperate manipulation.
Weissman offers the following for those who score well in omnipotence:
A lower score, in contrast, indicates you know the joy that comes from accepting that you are not the center of the universe. Since you are not in control of other adults, you are not ultimately responsible for them but only for yourself. This attitude does not isolate you from others. Quite the opposite is true. You relate to people effectively as a friendly collaborator, and you are not threatened when they disagree with your ideas or fail to follow your advice. Because your attitude gives people a sense of freedom and dignity, you paradoxically become a human magnet. Others often want to be close to you because you have relinquished any attempt to control them. People frequently listen to and respect your ideas because you do not polarize them with an angry insistence they must agree with you. As you give up your drive for power, people repay you by making you a person of influence. Your relationships with your children and friends and associates are characterized by mutuality instead of dependency. Because you don’t try to dominate other people, they admire, love, and respect you.
In her classic text Codependent No More (1992), Melody Beattie defines a codependent person as:
One who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior (pg.36).
John Cleese, one of the original members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, said recently that, “If you cannot control your own emotions, you try to control your environment, or what you think is creating these negative emotions (e.g., people, situations, immediate realities), and you can never control those things. So you’re f*$ked.” This is actually very similar to or is exactly behind what creates alcoholics and drug addicts, according to the origins and authors of the original “Big Book” of the 12-step programs for alcoholics (since applied to all addictions).
This can be maddening. We are unable to control the behavior of others without a great deal of aggression or manipulation, or both.
PERSONAL BOUNDARIES ARE YOUR VALUE SYSTEM IN ACTION.
In setting effective boundaries, you must be:
The first three make the last one work.
From I Don’t Have To Make Everything All Better by Gary and Joy Lundberg (2000)
I once watched a children’s cartoon series with my daughter, who was three at the time, called “Franklin”, a show that was intended to teach moral lessons to children through the exploits of Franklin, an anthropomorphic young turtle, and his friends who included a bear and a goose. The particular episode that we watched consisted of Franklin going through a series of situations in which he would rely on others to do things for him that he didn’t feel capable of doing, and in some cases, just didn’t feel like doing. The “others” were his parents and his friends. Eventually, he went on a camping trip with several friends, and it wasn’t too long before the friends tired of being asked to “help” Franklin, and left him alone to perform a task (tying a special knot that his father had tried to teach him earlier in the day) before he could go swimming.
Franklin’s friends eventually confronted him, with patience and love, and communicated they had faith that he was capable of doing what he had been asking them to do for him. They let him know they felt he was taking advantage of them, that he was straining his friendships as a result, and that he was cheating himself out of being fully capable, competent, and confident.
Essentially, this episode of Franklin provided kids a lesson in improving personal boundaries, as well as handling the demands of loved ones with validation, rather than enabling their boundary violations.
So let’s all work on modeling the friends of Franklin!